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Sometimes, shaving off ounces from your
Friday April 27, 2012

If you read some of the print publications, websites and blogs devoted to the fine art of backpack camping, you'd likely get the impression that carrying one extra gram of weight in your pack is a sin punishable by hours of purgatory on the hiking trail. The message, repeated over and over is that you simply can't enjoy yourself if your pack is even a pound too heavy.

Sorry, it just ain't so. Sometimes, you can be a lot more comfortable, have a lot more fun and, yes, even go backpacking more often just by carrying some extra weight.

First of all, when we start talking about "pack weight," we are talking about all the basic "stuff" that's always there: pack, tent, sleeping bag, pad, stove, cooking gear, toothbrush, etc. That's the constant, basic weight of your pack. Other weight like food, fuel, water, extra clothing layers, even toilet paper, will vary depending on where you are going, when, and for how long. Some of that variable weight will disappear as you eat the food, burn the fuel, etc. It's one of the axioms of any backpack adventure, that your pack is heavier starting out than it is on your return when you are presumably fitter and more used to carrying the load.

There are times when carrying the lightest possible basic pack weight makes some sense. If you are going out for a week or 10 days, for example, with no re-supply, you want to carry as little as you can in basic weight, because all those variables are going to weigh so much as you start out. But treks like that aren't all that common, especially here in the populated and compact northeast.

The other time you might want the lightest possible basic pack is for a really l-o-n-g hike, like the Appalachian Trail (end-to-end, or even Vermont's Long Trail. Walking every day takes a toll on your body (you will never see an obese AT throughhiker!) and you want to add as little to your burden as possible.

But for general recreational backpacking, going out for a one- two- or three-night excursion (which is, let's face it, how most of us backpack most of the time), counting ounces makes little sense, even if those ounces eventually add up to carrying more pounds.

In my view, based on many hundreds of nights in backpack camps, minimalist camping is often more of a trial than a true pleasure. Many years ago, just to prove I could, I spent two consecutive nights in the woods with nothing other than the clothes I was wearing, a sharp pocket knife, a length of fishing line and a couple of fish hooks. That's truly packing light!

One of those nights was quite chilly and rainy. I won't say I was comfortable, but I was never in any danger and I actually ate pretty well. It was a great experiment and one which taught me a lot about not only what I need to take, but also what I want to take when I go backpacking.

Since then, I've worried far less about the actual weight I was carrying and more about carrying a sensible load of gear which would keep me comfortable and safe in the woods. I carry a pack that feels good on my back, a tent that's big enough to stretch out in, a sleeping bag that's warm enough and comfy pads to go under it, a stove that can actually cook a meal and boil water, a camp chair so I can lounge in comfort in camp . . . Maybe that's why I enjoy backpacking so much.

Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Tim Jones is the Executive Editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email: timjones@easternslopes.com